NB-IoT Explained

What is NB-IoT?

NB-IoT stands for Narrowband IoT. It is a connectivity protocol that falls under the category of Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs). It was developed by the umbrella of multiple telecom organizations known as 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), which also developed 2G3G4G, and 5G.

NB-IoT was created to address the typical LPWAN requirements of IoT environments, as NB-IoT is renowned for its:

  • High indoor coverage
  • High connection density (particularly important in urbane environments with a high number of IoT devices trying to transmit data over NB-IoT)
  • Low deployment and operating costs
  • Wide range
  • Low power consumption / long battery life

NB-IoT for underground or indoor IoT environments

NB-IoT improves network efficiency dramatically and has an exceptionally high capacity (many devices can be connected at the same) compared to other LPWANs. It achieves this by only using a small portion of available frequencies. This also reduces device power consumption drastically – batteries may last for more than ten years!

NB-IoT can penetrate enclosed spaces, bunkers, and underground tunnels and can provide over 20dB coverage in indoor environments.

Security of NB-IoT

NB-IoT provides the same kind of security and privacy features that are already well-tested and established in other connectivity protocols, such as LTE or 3G. It supports:

  • Data integrity
  • Device identification
  • User identity confidentiality
  • Entity authentication

How does NB-IoT differ from LTE-M?

LTE-M for low latency

In IoT environments where latency is particularly important, LTE-M may is the better protocol. NB-IoT latency is typically around 1.6 to 10 seconds, while LTE-M latency hovers around 50ms to 150ms. So in cases where a company needs to rapidly analyze real-time sensor data in order to make informative corporate decisions, they should consider LTE-M over NB-IoT.

LTE-M for mobile IoT devices

NB-IoT has no full support for mobility yet. NB-IoT devices that are mobile and change location need to reselect different cells as it travels. Devices connected through LTE-M don’t need to reselect cells, which also impacts the power consumption of the devices.

This does not mean that shared scooter applications, fleet tracking devices, or other mobile trackers cannot utilize NB-IoT. However, the battery life will be shortened, latency may be increased, and the connection may not be as reliable as with LTE-M. Ultimately, NB-IoT is intrinsically much more suitable for stationary devices.

NB-IoT for energy efficiency

However, when NB-IoT-enabled devices are not “on the move” and do not have to switch between cells, they are generally much more energy-efficient than LTE-M-enabled devices. For many use-cases, this is a crucial factor, as replacing batteries is manual labor and can drastically increase overall maintenance costs of an IoT ecosystem, especially at a large-scale with thousands of IoT-enabled devices being deployed.

There is evidence that NB-IoT devices’ battery life can last over ten years; however, this number is theoretical, and there are many factors at play that can decrement the battery life of an NB-IoT-enabled device. There is also a strong commercial incentive for companies to exaggerate these numbers. Nevertheless, companies that are ready to sacrifice transmission speeds and latency for longer battery life and are planning to deploy stationary IoT-enabled devices should consider opting for NB-IoT over LTE-M.

NB-IoT for signal range in confined spaces

As the name suggests, NB-IoT utilizes narrowband (a single narrow band of either 180 KHz or 200 KHz). By utilizing such a narrow band, the density of transmission power is very high, which greatly improves its range. Compared to LTE-M, this makes NB-IoT much more suitable for IoT-devices located in buildings, basements, tunnels, or other underground or hard to reach locations.

LTE-M for high bandwidth requirements

Most IoT-environments don’t run particularly data-intensive applications, as most sensors transmit simple, often binary datasets in the kilobyte range. However, there are some IoT-devices, such as home security CCTV cameras, that need to transmit voluminous data in real-time. When it comes to data speed, LTE-M by design will never be on par with the standard LTE network; however, it transmits data much faster than NB-IoT. LTE-M’s peak data rate lies anywhere between 300 Kbps and 1Mbps, while NB-IoT’s peak data rate is below the 100Kbps mark.

NB-IoT for high connection density

As NB-IoT uses narrowband, it can support a greater number of connected devices. It is estimated that this connectivity standard can support over 100,000 active connections per cell.

The future of widespread NB-IoT adoption

Huawei and Gemalto are considered by many to be the leading force behind the drive for widespread NB-IoT adoption, as they combine their core competencies in a strategic cooperation. Gemalto leverages its expertise in connectivity and digital security, while Huawei provides high-performing, compact NB-IoT chipsets, which help IoT device manufacturers to reduce the size and cost of their devices.

This reduction in manufacturing costs will also be reflected in the deployment costs of NB-IoT-enabled networks. The financial barrier of companies considering the deployment of IoT-networks to make informative corporate decisions based on real-time datasets will be significantly lowered.

Several market projections have been made regarding IoT connections and NB-IoT market share (which should always be taken with a grain of salt):

  • 25 billion IoT connections of all types will be active by 2025.
  • In 2025 the number of active cellular IoT connections will reach 5 billion.
  • More than half of these connections will utilize NB-IoT and Cat-M standards.